The InterLaw Diversity Forum has been researching and promoting best practices around inclusion and diversity for the last 13 years. InterLaw Diversity Forum began its life as an inter-organisational network for LGBT+ individuals in the legal profession. We have gradually expanded our mission to cover all major strands of diversity and inclusion (Race & Ethnicity, LGBT+, Disability, Women, and social mobility) with a special focus on the intersectional aspects of diversity and the need for meaningful structural and cultural change in the legal profession.
The InterLaw Diversity Forum has held monthly meetings for our LGBT+ Network since our launch in 2008. These monthly meetings serve to create a space for diverse individuals and allies to meet to share best practice, to network, and to provide support. Our work on diversity in the UK legal profession over the last 13 years has provided us, as an organisation, with some unique insights on key factors impacting LGBT+ lawyers. Many of these findings have been underlined by our ongoing research with diverse and socially mobile lawyers for the update to our 2012 research report, Career Progression in the Legal Sector, which will be published in early 2021.
LGBT+ lawyers have always been part of the legal profession but it’s only with societal advances in equity for LGBT+ individuals that more and more lawyers have been both willing and able to be out at work. Unlike many other diverse identities, most LGBT+ individuals must make a choice to identify themselves. It’s important to understand that ‘coming out’ is not merely a one-time action but an ongoing process – LGBT+ lawyers need to navigate the issue of coming out each and every time they meet a new client or colleague. Given the different state of LGBT+ rights globally, lawyers may also need to downplay or hide their sexual orientation in different parts of the world, particularly if their safety could be at risk. It’s essential that the organisations they work for can provide the requisite baseline of support for individuals, and that is where allyship is fundamental.
Aiming high - burning out?
Our research has shown that many LGBT+ individuals, whether working as lawyers or business service professionals, are generally high achievers. It’s worth noting that most non-normative groups feel the need to over-perform in order to receive the same opportunity for promotion. Do LGBT+ lawyers push themselves further to ensure that they are not at risk of discrimination? The need to overachieve can, however, put diverse groups such as LGBT+ lawyers at greater risk of mental health and well-being issues at work. If there is not an inclusive culture in the workplace, LGBT+ lawyers and support staff may struggle to acknowledge such issues and to seek the help and support they need. Another factor to consider is that many of the LGBT+ respondents in our research were at more senior levels in the profession. Many LGBT+ lawyers, historically, did not declare their sexual orientation until they reached a certain level of seniority and felt that their career was established enough not to be negatively impacted. As more LGBT+ lawyers come out at earlier ages it remains to be seen how much this might impact their career prospects in the longer term. But staying in the closet and not being able to embrace their whole identity at work can be another factor that puts LGBT+ lawyers at greater risk of mental health issues.
Outperforming but not rewarded
More LGBT+ lawyers were pupils at selective schools or ‘grammar’ schools; given that these have shrunk in numbers over the last 20 years, this may also impact opportunities for access to Oxbridge and Russell Group Universities which provide a significant pipeline of candidates for training contracts.
However, despite their consistently high achievements, both lesbians and gay men were paid less than white straight men and white straight women at law firms.
It’s important to understand that the different groups that make of the L the G the B and the T will all face slightly different challenges. A lesbian may face discrimination because of her sexuality and gender; if she is also a mother and working class there might be other challenges that she faces
Identity is a blend of many different aspects of our life experiences. Our research and our strategy always consider the impact of intersectionality on diverse and socially mobile lawyers in the legal profession. Intersectionality looks at the various identities and the ways in which they blend and overlap to create advantages and disadvantages for different individuals and groups.
The overwhelming conclusion, from our research, is that the more intersectional you are, the more diverse identities you embody, then the more obstacles you will face and the harder it will be to progress in a law firm. The group that faces the fewest obstacles to progression in the legal profession were straight, white, elite-educated men. The cold hard fact is that, despite a lot of talk and client-facing window dressing around inclusion and diversity, there has been very little progress in real terms in law firms for diverse and socially mobile groups.
A real focus on inclusion and diversity in the legal profession demands greater consideration of the key structural causes of inequality that affect all non-normative groups rather than a focus on just the issues of particular groups. Proper consideration of equitable hiring, compensation, work allocation, and promotion systems is needed. This is one area where diversity, inclusion, and equality work and innovation towards the future of the profession could come together.
What can be done?
Following the upcoming publication of our 2021 research report, Career Progression in the Legal Sector, we will additionally release a series of factsheets on each major diversity strand. Our LGBT+ Factsheet will contain additional data, observations, and recommendations for best practice to recruit, retain, and promote LGBT+ talent in law.
Dr Catherine McGregor is an author, Management Consultant and Diversity and Inclusion Expert
Daniel K. Winterfeldt QC (Hon) is Founder and Chair of the InterLaw Diversity Forum